The bartender was pouring a saison when the question struck me.
“Isn’t this sacrilegious?”
The six taps at Beer Church Brewing, which opened in February in a former Methodist church in this lakefront southwest Michigan town, have been built into a 71-year-old blond wood altar left by the previous tenant.
I tend to favor beer over religion. So I wasn’t claiming offense. But did others?
“We’ve had numerous patrons come in and say they were baptized here,” Beer Church co-founder John Lustina said with a nod to the altar, still adorned with “IHS” — an early Greek representation of the name Jesus.
“The pastor of the church is one of our biggest supporters,” said Lustina’s partner, Jane Simon.
The Rev. Brad Bartelmay, who deconsecrated everything in what had been Water’s Edge United Methodist Church after its last service in late 2014, declined to discuss Beer Church. However, The Michigan City News-Dispatch quoted him in 2015 as saying his congregation was pleased with both the commitment to preserve the building and the prospect of drawing tourism to the area. Water’s Edge United Methodist is now housed in a modern campus a mile down the road.
“The thing we always go back to is that we saved this historic church,” Lustina said.
The bigger challenge since opening after nearly three years of civic hearings, construction and almost twice the expected expense is feigning amusement at the jokes when customers walk into what is unmistakably a 156-year-old former church: white, wood and crowned with a steeple and crooked cross.
Most popular: “Does this count as my Sunday obligation?”
The church motif wasn’t incidental at Beer Church — it was the idea fueling the project. The roots were planted by Lustina and Simon’s visit to Lagunitas Brewing’s Beer Circus in 2014 in Chicago’s Douglas Park. The event included clowns, carnival rides, vaudeville acts and endlessly flowing beer. It was novel, and it was ridiculous. They loved it. Everyone seemed to love it.
They wondered what other classic experience could be wrapped into the joys of drinking beer. Both were ready for the next phase of their lives: Lustina was in digital marketing, and Simon was a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. They quickly hit on the answer: a beer church.
Though no one had trademarked those two words together, Lustina and Simon weren’t the first to have the idea. Churches have been transformed into breweries in Pittsburgh (The Church Brew Works), Indianapolis (St. Joseph Brewery & Public House) and Cincinnati (Taft’s Ale House and Urban Artifact). Similar projects are underway in Chicago (Eris Brewery and Cider House plans to open this summer in a former Presbyterian church) and in Colorado Springs.
But Lustina and Simon are already thinking about expanding the concept to other locations, maybe as soon as next year. The requirement is little more than an iconic, historic church. It needs to have the unmistakable visual for a “beer church” to work.
For their initial beer church, Lustina and Simon planned to look for properties in northern Indiana. But they were immediately smitten with what they found in New Buffalo, 1.5 miles off the first exit Chicagoans pass when entering Michigan on Interstate 94. It had an iconic, straight-out-of-central-casting look, and the crooked cross on top helped name one of their first brews: Crooked Cross Cream Ale.
Lustina and Simon are reusing as much of the old church as they can. The lectern remains; it will become the host stand. Kneelers will be incorporated into the bar. The beer-flowing altar will eventually become the merchandise stand and be used to fill 32-ounce cans to go. Plans to replace the heavy wood doors inlaid with stained glass featuring the Methodist logo — a cross and a red flame — were scuttled when Lustina and Simon agreed that the doors looked good against their white, modern motif. Layers of carpet, tile and asbestos were stripped away to get to what is believed to be the building’s original pine floor.
And there are pews. So many pews.
“We have far more pews than we can use,” Simon said.
Sadly, since Water’s Edge wasn’t a Catholic church, no confessionals were left behind.
“Otherwise we would have found a creative way to use them,” Lustina said.
Beer Church is only using about 25 percent of its space at the moment as construction grinds on. A beer garden is expected to open by Memorial Day, and the full bar and kitchen, where wood-fired pizzas will be made, should be open by the Fourth of July.
Beer Church met some local resistance from people worried about a brewery in the town of 1,900. That included two members of the New Buffalo Planning Commission who voted against the project. But the early crowds have convinced Simon and Lustina that their hunch about the location was right; they’ve already been filled to capacity several times, leading to waits as long as 30 minutes during weekends.
Once fully operational, beer will flow from 12 taps made by head brewer Nate Peck, whose Peck’s Porter won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2014, when he was working at Tapistry Brewing in nearby Bridgman.
Peck made his first batches for Beer Church at Schmohz Brewing, in Grand Rapids. They thought it would be enough beer to get them though until their own equipment was ready, but business was so brisk that Peck went back to Schmohz to make a second batch of Pontius Pilate IPA. Yes, they’re going all the way with the motif.
“We don’t want to be kitschy,” Lustina said. “We want to be pop art ironic.”
Pontius Pilate is in the style of the very trendy New England-style IPA — fruity, floral and with very low bitterness. No surprise, it’s been the biggest seller at Beer Church. Other year-round beers will be Crooked Cross Cream Ale (the answer when someone asks, “What do you have that’s like Miller Lite?”), a rotating stout and a double IPA. The rest will be left to Peck’s experimentation, such as the lightly tart, wild rice saison made with Transient Artisan Ales, a popular Bridgman brewery specializing in ales made with wild yeast.
But for now, it’s the novelty of a beer church that seems to be much of the attraction.
“Beer church is something people think is funny, and now hopefully it makes them think of great beer,” Lustina said.
Plus, there’s the endless well of jokes, one of which I was treated to while preparing to leave, about 9 p.m. on a Thursday. A regular walked in with a friend.
“We came for 9 o’clock mass” he said.
If you go
Beer Church Brewing: 24 S. Whittaker St., New Buffalo, Mich.; 219-771-0635, www.beerchurchbrewing.com. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Nothing says Midwest quite like the easy-drinking flagship of Wisconsin’s most renowned craft brewer. As one industry veteran recently described it, Spotted Cow isn’t just a beer — “it’s an institution.” Spotted Cow may not be New Glarus’ best beer, but its enduring charm is undeniable, fueled mostly by its accessibility (“fun, fruity and satisfying,” the brewery says). Spotted Cow can please persnickety veteran beer fans or someone more likely to reach for a can of “lite” beer. Also in its favor is Spotted Cow’s irresistible name, its charming hand-drawn label (a cow jumping over the state of Wisconsin) and the fact that New Glarus doesn’t distribute beer beyond the Cheeseland borders. If you want the most classic of Midwest beers, you need to step into the heart of the Midwest. Doesn’t get more Midwestern than that.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
The IPA that taught the Midwest to love IPAs. Two Hearted dates to 1993, but has morphed gradually into its current form, which was recently named best beer in the U.S. (for a second time) by readers of Zymurgy magazine. There’s nothing flashy about Two Hearted — it’s built on the classic IPA motif of fruity citrus and bitter resinous pine. Bonus Midwest points for being named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.(Bell’s)
Most ambitious breweries age imperial stout in bourbon barrels these days. First to do it, back in 1995, was Chicago’s Goose Island. Though most Goose Island production has been exported to Anheuser-Busch breweries, Bourbon County Stout is still made in Chicago and remains a benchmark in the genre. Other breweries may rival or even surpass the quality, but “Bourbon County Stout” is among the most iconic words in beer for a reason.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Two Hearted may be the Midwest’s pioneering hop bomb, but Alpha King hasn’t been far behind since debuting as Three Floyds’ very first beer, in 1996. Plenty of other trendy pale ales have appeared since — including Floyds’ own Zombie Dust — but Alpha King remains an expert piece of Midwest beer history. And it’s still a damn fine pale ale.(John Dziekan / Chicago Tribune)
A chocolate oatmeal coffee stout isn’t so radical now, but 15 years ago it sure was. An instant classic that remains so, even after graduating from rare specialty release to a year-round part of Founders’ portfolio.(Jim Karczewski / Chicago Tribune)
I was at one of Chicago’s better bars recently, where all sorts of trendy IPAs and adjunct-laden stouts were on tap. The most satisfying thing I drank? This smooth and roasty porter, which originates to 1990 and remains tasty as ever.(Bonnie Trafelet / Chicago Tribune)
Few of the new generation of Midwestern breweries have captured hearts and minds quite like Side Project, which did in fact begin as a side project for Cory King, a brewer for Perennial Artisan Ales at the time. Now on his own, King makes mostly sour and funky ales aged in oak. The beers aren’t released with much regularity so it’s difficult to recommend any one in particular. Instead, it is the Side Project portfolio — especially those oak-aged wild ales — that are recommended. The beers are available only at Side Project’s two St. Louis-area locations. If ever there was cause for a road trip, this is it.(Cory King / Side Project Brewing)
A modern classic that got the Midwest on board with the bold fruity-citrus direction hop-forward beers were headed, while almost single-handedly putting the Hawkeye state on the beer-drinking map.(E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
First introduced in 1999, this French-style ale from suburban Chicago is a well-honored example (seven major medals during the past 11 years) of elegance and balance — not too hoppy, not too malty, not too earthy, not too dry but a little bit of all of the above. Biere de garde never quite caught on in the mainstream, yet Domaine DuPage was still somehow ahead of its time.(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Often imitated and rarely duplicated, Abraxas was one of the first notable “pastry stouts” — those boozy black beers laden with a spice drawer of ingredients. This one, made with ancho chile peppers, cacao nibs, vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks, was visionary when first released shortly after Perennial launched in 2011. It continues to excel in its harmony and balance. The barrel-aged version is even more impressive.
(Aitor Rodriguez Godoy)
Jolly Pumpkin claims a lofty distinction in American brewing: the nation’s first all-sour, all oak-aged brewery. There’s really not a bad beer in Jolly Pumpkin’s lineup, but this low alcohol (4.5 percent) farmhouse ale is an essential starting point with a web of earthy flavors: lemon, rind, straw, hay and a touch of oak and a bit of a tart tealike character. Layered, complex and approachably refreshing.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Beer drinkers in a certain swath of the lower Midwest and Plains states — Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska among them — would likely cite Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat as the single most essential beer to come out of the Midwest. (Said one such person, “Countless people cut their better beer teeth on that beer.”) But here’s where my bias comes in: among Boulevard Brewing’s very fine lineup, it is Tank 7 saison that was the game changer. Introduced in 2009, Tank 7 is as responsible as any beer for bringing the earthy, elegant style — one that 10 years earlier wasn’t being made by any American brewery — into the mainstream.(Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)
This IPA was a later arrival — in 2014 — for a brewery that’s been grinding out renowned beer since 2005. But Todd the Axe Man was among those shepherding in the new era of IPA: bold, robust and fruity. An instrumental part of the Midwest’s transition from where hoppy simply meant “bitter” to meaning “fruity and bitter.”(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Goose Island gets credit for launching the barrel-aging revolution, but the best barrel-aged coffee beer in our fair region may be this one from central Wisconsin. Rich coffee sits alongside notes of ripe fruit, creamy vanilla and chocolate. This beer had a couple of down years with infected batches, but the most recent release shows Peruvian Morning to be back atop its game.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Amid so much regional German influence, it only makes sense a German-inspired craft brewery should make a definitive version of one of the most iconic German styles of all. Afterburner is a toasty Oktoberfest beer with lingering depth and body and a long bready finish.(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
It was an unlikely sight when it first appear in 2015: a traditional tart Belgian-style beer … in a 12-ounce can! As part of Destihl’s Wild Sour series, Flanders Red is just what it should be: tart and jamlike fruitiness wrapped in pleasantly puckering sourness, lingering like sour candy.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Pity the oatmeal stout. It isn’t full of trendy hops. It isn’t crammed with weird, sugary ingredients. It’s just good beer — creamy, roasty and satisfying. The Poet has been one of the Midwest’s definitive oatmeal stouts for nearly 20 years. It remains so.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
There was a “holy smokes” moment back when this little brewpub an hour south of Chicago won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2012 in the American-style pale ale category, one of the festival’s most competitive. But the beer was pitch perfect: An initial burst of lush mango and grapefruit notes dry out into a clean, bitter finish accented by a dash of juicy sweetness. Tastes have moved on, but this remains a definitive American pale ale.(E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
This wasn’t supposed to be Off Color’s flagship. But the people spoke, and they came down firmly on the side of a modern American saison, a zesty explosion of orange, lemon, clove, honey and a touch of vanilla laced with bright yeasty backbone. Refreshing and effervescent.(Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)
New England style IPAs — also known as hazy or double dry-hopped IPAs — have been all the rage, but there’s a problem: A lot of them are bad. The Midwest’s definitive version arguably comes from this small brewery just east of Lansing. It has everything a beer of this style should: massive fruit stand-like citrus and a decadently soft body balanced by just enough bitterness.(Old Nation Brewing)
An alluring web of toffee, caramel and milk chocolate and a wisp of coconut mingle in a beer that’s also lightly nutty and deeply drinkable. Sadly, this beer was only available in Chicago for a short time. But hey, Michigan isn’t so far.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Very much of the new generation of stouts, a fudgy, sweet decadent treat that makes the beer nerds go mad.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Capital Brewing, dating to 1984, is of the old guard of Midwestern brewing — which makes it a perfect fit for an old guard German style like maibock. This malty golden-copper brew, rife with caramel richness and a wisp of butterscotch in the sweet, grainy finish, is released every spring. As the brewery says: “When you see our Maibock hit the shelves you know things are about to get better … including the weather!” How Midwestern.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Upland has waded into an ambitious sour beer program, and one of the most revered is a golden sour ale aged on fresh Indiana pawpaw fruit.(Joseph C. Garza / The Tribune-Star)
It’s no exaggeration to call Piece one of the nation’s great brewpubs. The pizza is delicious and the beer, made by Jonathan Cutler — who has been the brewer since Day 1, in 2001 — is even better. Cutler makes a variety of styles well, and his dozens of medals prove as much. Among the classics is the dark German-style ale, rife with notes of banana and cocoa. It’s typically a cold-weather release for Piece, which makes it one of the few reasons to — gasp — actually look forward to winter in the Midwest.
(Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)